Catch Your Own River Monster

Giant catfish, peacock bass, wolfish and Lord knows what else lurks in these mysterious waters

by Chris Dorsey

Chris Dorsey of Sporting ClassicsChris Dorsey is among the world's most widely traveled sportsmen having hunted and fished on five continents. He's served in leadership roles of numerous conservation and sporting advocacy organizations. He's a biologist, author of six books on outdoor subjects, is a past editor-in-chief of Sports Afield and Ducks Unlimited magazines and his work has appeared in most of the outdoor magazines in the English-speaking world . 

Forbes logoChris visited our Multi-species Lodge in February of 2020; This article about his trip originally appeared in Forbes Magazine in June of 2020. 

Rio Travessao
The giant red-tail catfish is one of scores of catfish found throughout the Amazon. JOHN MACGILLIVRAY, DORSEY PICTURES

As the plane fitted with floats careens off the air pockets wafting from the canopy of the Amazon below, I’m eager to touch down in one of the planet’s most remote fishing waters. It’s as exotic an environment as exists on our planet, a jungle home to jaguar, anacondas, macaws and myriad as yet uncatalogued creatures.

peacock bass
Floatplanes are the only way into the remote lodge.  JOHN MACGILLIVRAY, DORSEY PICTURES.
(Click image to enlarge. )

Our destination is a hidden camp situated on a spit of an island in the midst of the Rio Travessao, a massive waterway home to too many species of fish to count. The location is a mix of Swiss Family Robinson and Gilligan’s Island, a series of huts on stilts with comfortable beds and hot showers…and the occasional tarantula doubling as a doormat.

I have come to see about catching the region’s giant catfish—Paraiba, red tail and leopard—and any others willing to play along, including peacock bass, wolf fish, bicuda, pacu and the world’s largest piranha. The character of this river is very different than the prime peacock bass waters of the Rio Negro that draws most of the foreign anglers. This is a place for wilderness explorers looking for surprises, for there’s no way to know what you might reel up out of these murky depths.

Rio Travessao
Acute Angling’s remote camp provides comfortable accommodations in the heart of some of the Amazon’s best fishing.
JOHN MACGILLIVRAY, DORSEY PICTURES

My shoulder-height aboriginal guide, perhaps 30-something—though it’s tough to tell with this tribe—steers our boat to the mouth of a small creek feeding into the main channel of the river. These confluences are fishy the world over, but unlike finding a brown or rainbow on the Big Hole or the Madison, I’m not altogether certain what might lie beneath the surface here.

The guide hands me a rod, points to the calm waters under some overhanging vegetation and directs simply, “Cast there.”

I flip a wooden lure with all manner of hooks and spinning parts exactly where instructed. The contraption looks like a blender working its way across the surface until a peacock bass interrupts the retrieve and begins cartwheeling through the air as if it’s being electrocuted. Streaks of yellow and green shoot into the sky as the fish seems utterly terrorized by the prospect of being hooked. It’s my baptism to this river and a sturdy seven-pound fish at that, a species that fights well above its weight-class.

peacock bass
Peacock bass abound throughout the Amazon basin and are prized by anglers for their acrobatic fight.  JOHN MACGILLIVRAY, DORSEY PICTURES
( Click image to enlarge. )

I come to understand what all the fuss is about with peacocks. They are a species that calls into question their relationship to gravity, as if they may have evolved as much from birds as anything aquatic. Despite the common name, they’re not closely related to bass at all, but rather are cichlids, which is Latin for ass kicker. While they’re found in far greater abundance in the Rio Negro and other Amazon tributaries, there are enough of them here that they provide one of the main courses of a very diverse menu, which is the unique appeal of this river.

The next morning we head to a large, deep pool in the river, maybe 30 minutes upriver. We stop and anchor to a long, naked tree stem that has fallen from the bank and juts into the river. My guide puts chunks of paku (a sort of South American panfish) on baseball sized treble hooks and hands the rebar like rods to me to begin casting in the midst of the current, a two-pound lead sinker attached to the rig. Either we are fishing for Volkswagens or there are fish down there for which we should have brought a rifle.

Then we wait. And wait some more, occasionally recasting to get the bait back into the hole the guide is convinced will produce a fish. Just as we’re about to leave, my rod slams to the rim of the boat. The question is, what is on the end of my line? Paraiba? Red tail? No, a leopard catfish, a 25-pound specimen with a dark brown body that looks as if someone used chicken wire as a stencil to create the intricate pattern on its skin. I hoist the beast to the boat after a 15 minute fight, the final cranks of the reel like the last turns opening a sardine can. It’s an incredibly strong fighter that has no interest in reaching the surface, seemingly as light-shy as a vampire.

With my catfish fight over, I head up river and we wind our way into a tributary, the over-hanging branches giving it the feel of some obscured waterway you’d see in a low-budget horror flick leading to a lost tribe of cannibals. Overhead macaws fly kite-like, squawking their protest at our intrusion. A wild muscovy duck flies ahead of us, as if leading the way upriver. I’m not sure where we’re heading but reckon that there must  be a good reason for detouring so far off the main channel.

After the half-hour run, we pull to the edge of a 60-yard wide pool and drop anchor. It feels as if we have a reservation for the guide doesn’t hesitate when he reaches the hole. With my hook baited again, I pitch the rig into the pool as advised by the guide. There isn’t a great deal of conversation given the language barrier but there is a clear understanding of what to do and when. The why is a bit fuzzy, however.

bicuda
The Rio Travessao holds huge, world-record class bicuda, some attaining nearly 20 pounds. ( Click image to enlarge. )

Nevertheless, we cast on blind faith and wait to see what is delivered. This time, I get another hard pull on my line, the rod bouncing up and down as something hefty and testy is trying to make a getaway with my hook. I fight back, bending the stout rod in half and pumping the reel like some kind of blue water behemoth is at the end of the line. Instead, I pull up an utterly prehistoric looking wolf fish, a toothy, semi-evolved leftover from some Jurassic gene pool. We snap a few photos and I’m about to release it when the guide intervenes.

“No, no, no…lunch…we eat for lunch.”

I’ve enjoyed shore lunches from the wilds of Alaska to Quebec salmon rivers but I had the feeling this one was about to be a bit different. We wind our boat back to the main channel of the river and find an open sandy beach to pull in and build a fire. Soon the fish is scaled and steaming in banana leaves, my guide’s preparation as matter-of-fact as a hotdog on a grill.

He hoists a small cooler out of the back of the boat with seasoning and a sweet chutney like fruit sauce, the combination making for some of the best fish I’ve ever eaten…anywhere. The meat of the wolf fish is almost halibut or barramundi like, a dense yet moist white meat. Lunch wraps with a nap on hammocks that are quickly strung between trees to keep you above any slithering visitors that might arrive from beneath the ever-present leaf litter.

Rio Travessao
Americans flock to the Amazon in search of a wide menu of exotic fish species—including catfish.
JOHN MACGILLIVRAY, DORSEY PICTURES

The next day we head far up river, getting a look at this amazing environment with its never ending jungle, diverse bird life, caiman along the bank and densely woven vegetation lining the whole of the waterway. About the time I am wondering if my passport is still valid here, my guide slows the full throttle of the motor to ease to the end of a large pool, rigs up a massive treble hook and points to where I am to shotput the weighted bait.

In just a few moments, I hook a red tail and a rodeo begins, the incredibly strong, 50-pound catfish feel like I’m reeling in cinder blocks…several of them. This isn’t finesse fishing to be sure, but there is something wholly satisfying about subduing a heavyweight leviathan in a game of tug of war as old as Jonah and the whale.

I came to this secluded piece of the world to hook a monster…and that’s what I got—along with the memory of an adventure that will live as long as I do.

— Chris Dorsey — 2020

piraiba
( Click image to enlarge. )

For Your Information

Rio Travessao Multi-species variety trips are available from mid-October through February. For more information on booking an exotic fishing adventure, contact:

Paul Reiss at (866) 832-2987 ext. 1
E-Mail Paul Reiss, or:

Garry Reiss at (866) 832-2987 ext. 2
E-Mail Garry Reiss